Looking back, the 1980’s had a lot more to offer than mullets and acid washed jeans. The 80’s gave us MTV and a generation of music video superstars like Madonna, U2 and Duran Duran, many of which are still making relevant music today. It was also the dawning of the video game revolution as systems evolved from the crude Atari 2600 capabilities of Pong and Space Invaders, to the sophisticated story-driven games of Mario Bros. and Zelda.
But the most significant cultural phenomenon of the 1980’s would have to be the popularity of the television sitcom. While the big-screen focused on tales of war, fantasy and science-fiction (Platoon, E.T. and Blade Runner), and television dramas celebrated the excess of the times (Dynasty, Dallas) it was the sitcom that delivered the most relevant and profound content available in the mainstream media at the time. From Bosom Buddies and Who’s The Boss, to Family Ties, Cheers and, of course, The Cosby Show, 80’s sitcoms sparked cultural dialogue around many of the issues of the day. Whether it be matters of race, gender, sexual orientation or class, the sitcom covered it all.
Who doesn’t remember the “Must See TV” slogan used by NBC to describe its powerhouse Thursday night lineup of the mid-late 80’s featuring The Cosby Show, Family Ties, Cheers and Night Court as lead-ins to network dramas Hill Street Blues and L.A. Law.
In the 90’s, shows like Mad About You, Frasier, Wings, and ultimately Friends and Seinfeld took over the “Must See” mantra, but it was never quite the same.
Now, as we get near the end of the first decade in this millennium, the sitcom appears to have lost its luster. To be honest, up until recently, there wasn’t one sitcom I tuned in to on a regular basis since Jerry, Georgre, Kramer and Elaine went off to prison.
It wasn’t really until halfway through the decade that the first truly significant sitcoms hit the airwaves. WIth the arrival of My Name Is Earl and The Office in 2005, and the addition of 30 Rock the following season, NBC finally has something resembling a “Must See” lineup – truth be told, I have never actually seen a single episode of any of these shows.
So, what happened. Perhaps the popularity of animated sitcoms like The Simpsons, South Park, Family Guy and American Dad pulled viewers away. Or maybe, the recycled story-lines and characters just got a little old for the internet-savvy audience of the new millennium.
Recently, I have once again returned to the sitcom format. While they don’t hold the cultural significance of Cosby or Archie Bunker, here are my top-5 shows if you’re looking for a good laugh in these trying times:
1. The Big Bang Theory – Currently mid-way through its second season, the show centers around roommates Leonard and Sheldon, 20-something scientists who live across the hall from a pretty blonde waitress with show-biz aspirations. It’s their equally geeky and socially-awkward friends Howard and Rajesh that steal every scene they’re in.
2.Gary UnMarried – I have always liked Jay Mohr (I think it was his Christopher Walken impression that first got me). The series follows the life of Gary Brooks and begins three months after he and his ex-wife Allison divorce. Gary is trying to get back in the dating scene while his ex has moved on and is in a relationship with their former marriage counselor, played brilliantly by Ed Begley Jr.. While Gary and Allison clearly have issues, you can’t help but see that besides sharing two kids together, they still have a soft spot for each other.
3. Californication – Not technically a sitcom, but I count this Showtime series (TMN in Canada) because it is (a) 30-minutes long, and (b) it makes me laugh. The series revolves around Hank Moody, a charming writer and novelist plagued with personal demons, played by David Duchovny. Hank struggles to be a good dad, loyal partner and responsible adult while battling against the temptations of being a successful, single, good looking guy in L.A. He drinks too much, sleeps with anything with a pulse, says all the wrong things and refuses to be part of the establishment. The writing on this show is smart – hip and witty with a twisted and dark sensibility that could only come to life on a cable program. I’m not up to date on season two, but look forward to catching up with Hank over the summer.
4. Flight Of The Conchords – Also not really a sitcom, this may be the funniest of them all. The show revolves around the day-to-day lives and loves of two musicians (Jemaine and Bret) who have moved from New Zealand to try to make it big in New York City. The highlights of every episode are the songs that weave their way in to the plot – my all time favorite is Business Time about the signals women give to guys when it’s time to have sex (like wearing over-sized, promotional t-shirts from work to bed). Their manager, Murray (played by Rhys Darby) has a day job as the Deputy Cultural Attaché at the New Zealand consulate, and they often meet in his tiny office where he takes band attendance prior to beginning any discussion on band business.
5. How I Met Your Mother – This one has been on for four seasons and the best way to describe it is as a modern-day Friends. A total ensemble sitcom featuring the unbelievable talents of Alyson Hannigan (American Pie) and Neil Patrick Harris (yes…Doogie). It’s also kind of like the Wonder Years in the sense that the basic premiss is a dad recounting his youth, and in this case, the events that led to his meeting their mother. Favorite episodes include “The Limo” from Season One where the friends attempt to make it to five New Years Eve parties by limo (hysterics ensue) and “The Best Burger In New York” – self explanatory.